31 August and 14 September 2007
80th Anniversary of Legal Lynching
Lessons of the Fight to Free Sacco and Vanzetti
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! Free All Class-War Prisoners!
August 23 marked the anniversary of the executions of anarchist workers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927. Arrested in May 1920 at the height of the anti-immigrant Red Scare that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution, the two were convicted the next year on frame-up murder and robbery charges. Sacco, a skilled worker in a shoe factory, and Vanzetti, who supported himself as a fish peddler, were singled out because they were Italian immigrants and because they had dedicated their lives to fighting for the emancipation of the working class.
With their executions, Sacco and Vanzetti joined a long list of working-class fighters subjected to the barbaric death penalty or entombed in prison by the rulers of democratic American capitalism: the Haymarket martyrs, labor organizers and anarchists executed in 1887; Joe Hill, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) activist framed up on murder charges and killed by a firing squad in Utah in 1915; Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, also framed up on murder charges stemming from a bomb explosion at a 1916 San Francisco Preparedness rally that drummed up support for U.S. entry into World War I, an interimperialist war. (Mooney and Billings were released from prison in 1939.) Up to their last breaths, Sacco and Vanzetti remained unbowed. As the guards strapped him in the electric chair, Sacco declared, Viva lanarchia. Moments later, Vanzetti turned to the warden and stated, I am innocent of all crime, not only of this one, but all. I am an innocent man. He was electrocuted within minutes.
The story of Sacco and Vanzetti is also one of militant struggle for their lives and freedom led by the International Labor Defense (ILD), associated with the early Communist Party (CP). The U.S. affiliate of the International Red Aid (MOPR), which was established by the Communist International, the ILD blazed a trail of class-struggle defense by mobilizing workers across the U.S. on Sacco and Vanzettis behalf, in conjunction with MOPRs efforts internationally.
Following the executions, ILD secretary James P. Cannon, a leader of the early CP and later of American Trotskyism, drew the lessons of this struggle in an article in the ILDs Labor Defender (October 1927) titled, A Living Monument to Sacco and Vanzetti. Cannon wrote: In this act of assassination the ruling class of America shows its real face to the world. The mask of democracy is thrown aside. In appealing for workers solidarity, Cannon pointed out, the ILD endeavored to link up the fight for them with the general defense of the scores of labor prisoners confined in the penitentiaries today and with the broader fight of the toiling masses for liberation from the yoke of capitalism.
That is the perspective that guides the work of the Partisan Defense Committee—a class-struggle legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League. The work of the ILD provides vital lessons for working-class militants, leftists and radical youth in the struggles of today, in particular the fight for the life and freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A Black Panther Party spokesman in his youth, later an award-winning journalist and supporter of the MOVE organization, Mumia was framed up on false charges for the 9 December 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and sentenced to death explicitly for his political views. Mumias case is the racist and political frame-up of an innocent man. As we have stressed since the PDC first took up his cause some 20 years ago, the road to his freedom lies in mobilizing the proletariat in the U.S. and internationally, whose social power lies in its numbers, organization and ability to bring production to a halt.
The similarities between the frame-ups of Sacco and Vanzetti and of Mumia are striking. All three were victimized for their political beliefs and activities. Sacco and Vanzetti were among the anarchists targeted for repression by the federal government; Mumia had been targeted by the FBI and Philadelphia cops from the time he was a 15-year-old spokesman for the Black Panthers, also earning their wrath for his later defense of the MOVE organization against brutal cop attacks. Both cases featured jury-rigging, concealment of evidence, coercion of witnesses and phony ballistics, with trials presided over by judges openly biased against the defendants.
In 1924, after denying a motion for a new trial for Sacco and Vanzetti, Judge Webster Thayer told Dartmouth College professor James Richardson, Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? (quoted in Herbert Ehrmann, The Case That Will Not Die ). At the time of Mumias 1982 trial, Judge Albert Sabo was overheard by a court reporter boasting, Im going to help them fry the n----r. In both cases, another man ultimately confessed, absolving the defendants of any involvement, only to have the courts disregard the confessions. And for Mumia as well as for Sacco and Vanzetti, workers and oppressed around the world rallied to their support, seeing their own struggles in the fight for their freedom.
Of crucial importance is that in the Sacco and Vanzetti case—as in Mumias case today—the policy of class-struggle defense was pitted against illusions sown by bourgeois liberals, trade-union misleaders and reformist leftists in the fairness of capitalist justice. Up to the day of Sacco and Vanzettis execution, the ILD waged a tireless fight for unity in action on their behalf, based on the class struggle. The ILD supported using any legal means available for Sacco and Vanzetti. But as Cannon insisted, the fight for Sacco and Vanzetti had to be taken to the supreme court of the masses. At every turn of the legal battle—motions for a new trial, appeal before Massachusetts highest court, petitions for clemency or appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court—the ILD fought against those who undermined the struggle by preaching reliance on the black-robed justices or the Massachusetts governor, a policy accompanied by slanders, exclusions and even physical attacks against the ILD and CP.
A Proletarian Cause
By the time of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, their cause had been taken up by a wide spectrum of organizations and prominent individuals: from labor unions and socialist organizations in the U.S. to Members of Parliament in Britain and world-renowned writers and artists. Albert Einstein signed a protest to U.S. president Calvin Coolidge. Playwright George Bernard Shaw denounced the frame-up, while Pulitzer prizewinner Edna St. Vincent Millay publicized their cause in her poems. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, the classic muckraking novel about the meatpacking industry, championed their defense as did John Dos Passos in his 1927 pamphlet Facing the Chair. Sacco and Vanzetti were later memorialized in paintings by Ben Shahn, music by Woodie Guthrie, Ennio Morricone and Joan Baez, and in plays and movies.
An article by Harvard law professor and later Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter in the Atlantic Monthly (March 1927), later expanded into the book The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, laid bare the legal farce to a national and international audience. Frankfurters book created such a stir that the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, former president William Howard Taft, blasted it as vicious propaganda and Frankfurters phone was tapped.
Support for Sacco and Vanzetti was notable for its breadth, including from liberal figures like Frankfurter who saw in their frame-up a stain on the image of American democracy. But their case belongs to the international proletariat. As early as 1921, there were protests in European capitals like London, Rome and Paris, as well as in Casablanca, Morocco, Mexico City, Caracas, Venezuela and Montevideo, Uruguay. The identification of workers around the world with the two militants was captured by the Syndicate of Truck Drivers of the Port of Veracruz, Mexico, who in a 1921 protest demanded, Free Sacco and Vanzetti or the proletarian world will rip out your guts! In the U.S., various unions and even the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) tops, along with the Socialist Party (SP), IWW and other leftist and civil libertarian groups, would also add their voices.
Organized defense of Sacco and Vanzetti was initiated by Italian anarchists in Boston and joined shortly after by a number of civil libertarians. But it was the intervention of the International Red Aid and the ILD in the U.S. that played a central role in the proletarian protest movement. And at a time when executions routinely took place shortly after convictions, it was the mobilization of millions that kept Sacco and Vanzetti alive for six years.
The Communist International and the CP in the U.S. issued appeals for a worldwide campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti in the fall of 1921. The first issue of Labor Herald (March 1922), publication of the CP-allied Trade Union Educational League, called for Labor! Act at Once to Rescue Sacco and Vanzetti! The CPs Daily Worker reported on each twist and turn in the case and regularly reported on protests internationally. In a front-page appeal, the CP called in the Daily Worker (27 December 1924) for all organizations of workers in America to join with it in a united front for Sacco and Vanzetti, against their capitalist enemies and for their immediate release.
The Sacco and Vanzetti case was a feature of the founding convention of the ILD in 1925. The ILD grew out of discussions in Moscow between James P. Cannon and ex-Wobbly Big Bill Haywood. Non-sectarian labor defense had been a theme of Workers (Communist) Party propaganda since its inception, but the ILD gave it flesh and blood. A former IWW member himself, Cannon had a history of experience in labor defense cases. He recalled, I came from the background of the old movement when the one thing that was absolutely sacred was unity on behalf of the victims of capitalist justice (quoted in Bryan Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 ). Seeking to overcome the limitations of past labor defense practices, in which each case would lead to the establishment anew of an ad hoc defense committee, Cannon sought to build a labor-based defense organization for the entire workers movement.
As Cannon described in The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962), the ILD was founded especially to take up the plight of any member of the working class movement, regardless of his views, who suffered persecution by the capitalist courts because of his activities or his opinions. The ILD fused the IWW tradition of class-struggle, non-sectarian defense—captured in the Wobbly slogan, An injury to one is an injury to all—with the internationalism of the Bolshevik Revolution. Upon its founding, the ILD identified 106 class-war prisoners in the U.S. and instituted the policy of financially assisting them and their families. Within a little more than a year, the ILD had branches in 146 cities with 20,000 individual members as well as 75,000 members of unions and other workers organizations collectively affiliated to the ILD.
The ILD publicized Sacco and Vanzettis struggle and organized rallies and political strikes to demand their freedom. The ILD struggled to prevent the workers militancy and class solidarity from being dissipated by the liberals, social democrats and AFL tops who preached the inherent justice of the capitalist courts. The ILD mobilized on the basis of the united front, seeking maximum unity in struggle of the various organizations standing for defense of Sacco and Vanzetti while giving a thorough airing of the political differences between the CP/ILD and others. The slogan march separately, strike together embodies the two aims of the united-front tactic: class unity and the political fight for a communist program.
The international protest movement wrote a historic page in the textbook of class-struggle defense. The ILD initiated 500 May Day Sacco and Vanzetti meetings in cities across the country and played a key role in organizing labor protests and strikes, from a rally of 20,000 in New York Citys Union Square in April 1927 to protests and strikes involving hundreds of thousands on the eve of the executions. The ILD understood that in order to stop the executions and win their freedom, it could rely only on mounting such a powerful wave of labor action that the capitalist rulers would refrain from carrying out their plans.
However, the anti-Communist AFL tops sabotaged the strike movement at decisive moments, abetted by the SP social democrats and others. Countless articles and books have since been written vilifying the CP and ILD—from those that acknowledge a miscarriage of justice in the case to others preposterously claiming that either Sacco or both men were guilty. Representative of the former is the newly published Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind by Bruce Watson, which parrots anti-Communist slanders passed on for generations, from the grotesque claim that the CP couldnt have cared less whether Sacco and Vanzetti lived or died to the lie that the ILD pocketed the money they raised for the defense.
The Red Scare
Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on 5 May 1920 amid a virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Red hysteria. When U.S. imperialism entered the First World War, the government implemented a plethora of repressive measures criminalizing antiwar activity. The 1917 Espionage Act mandated imprisonment for any act deemed to interfere with the recruitment of troops. Haunted by the spectre of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the following year Congress passed the Sedition Act that made criticizing the U.S. form of government a felony.
The Red Scare hit full stride in 1919. That year saw the crest of a wave of labor radicalism that swept Europe in response to the carnage of WWI and under the impact of the Russian Revolution. In the U.S., the ranks of the SP swelled to more than 100,000, mostly foreign-born workers, with two-thirds supporting the pro-Bolshevik left wing. The U.S. was hit by the biggest strike wave up to that time, as four million workers walked off their jobs in response to inflation induced by the war. In Seattle, a general strike brought the city to a halt for five days in February 1919, while later that year longshoremen refused to load munitions being sent to counterrevolutionaries seeking to overthrow the young Soviet workers state.
The U.S. bourgeoisie whipped up hysteria over a series of bombings attributed to anarchists. After an attempt to bomb his home in June 1919, U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer unleashed an additional wave of repression, ranting that revolution was licking at the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundation of society. In November the Palmer Raids were launched with the arrests of over 3,000 foreign-born radicals. Ultimately, at least 6,000 would be deported. As the world capitalist order stabilized, the 1920s in the U.S., now the worlds chief capitalist power, was a decade of rampant reaction: further anti-immigrant legislation was passed in 1921 and 1924; anti-trust laws were used to break strikes; labor militants and Communists were thrown in jail. Growing by leaps and bounds, the Ku Klux Klan marched 40,000-strong in Washington, D.C.
Sacco and Vanzetti came to symbolize those caught in the web of repression. Each had come to the United States in 1908. Within five years they had become anarchists and subscribers to the Italian-language anarchist newspaper Cronaca Sovversiva (Chronicle of Subversion) of Luigi Galleani. Saccos name appeared frequently in the papers column announcing organizing activities, particularly raising money for political prisoners and jailed strikers. Sacco helped raise funds for workers and their arrested leaders during the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The following year he helped organize strike pickets at the Hopedale Paper Mill and in December 1916 was one of three Massachusetts anarchists arrested for holding a meeting without a permit in solidarity with striking iron workers in Minnesota. Also in 1916, Vanzetti raised funds to support strikers at the giant Plymouth Cordage plant, at which he had previously worked.
Sacco and Vanzetti met for the first time in 1917 in Mexico, where many Galleanists had gone to avoid registering for the draft. Sacco returned to the U.S. after a few months. Vanzetti returned later, at a time of intense repression against Cronaca Sovversiva, including repeated raids on its offices and confiscation of the paper, which was banned from the mails. In February 1918, federal agents raided the Cronaca office in Lynn, Massachusetts, seizing 5,000 addresses of subscribers, including Sacco and Vanzetti. Eighty Galleanists were arrested, and Galleani himself was deported in 1919.
On 24 December 1919, an attempt was made to rob a payroll truck as it approached the L. Q. White shoe factory in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. When payroll guards fired back, the two gunmen fled to a waiting black car which drove off. Witnesses described the gunmen as foreigners. One who fired a shotgun was said to have a dark complexion and black moustache. On 15 April 1920, two employees of the Slater & Morrill shoe company in South Braintree, outside of Boston, were attacked by two men as they carried the factory payroll. Paymaster Frederick Parmenter and his assistant Alessandro Berardelli were shot and killed, and the bandits escaped with others in a dark-colored car.
Three weeks later, on May 5, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in a trap set by Bridgewater police chief Michael Stewart, who sought to pin both robberies on anarchists. The two anarchists, along with their comrades Ricardo Orciani and Mike Boda, had sought to retrieve Bodas car from a West Bridgewater garage where it was being repaired. As prearranged with Chief Stewart, the owner refused to turn over the car, and his wife called the cops. After the anarchists left the garage, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on a streetcar to Boston.
Never told that they were robbery suspects, Sacco and Vanzetti believed that they were being arrested for their political activities. In his court testimony, Vanzetti described the questioning by Stewart: He asked me why we were in Bridgewater, how long I know Sacco, if I am a Radical, if I am an anarchist or Communist, and he asked me if I believe in the government of the United States.
The immediate backdrop to their arrests was the death two days before of fellow anarchist Andrea Salsedo, who had plunged 14 floors from the Department of Justice office in New York City. Arrested in February, Salsedo and Roberto Elia had been held incommunicado. In late April, Grupo Autonomo, a cell of Italian anarchists, had sent Vanzetti to New York to obtain information about the two. There he was advised by the Italian Defense Committee to dump any radical literature as more raids were anticipated. For that purpose, on May 5 they went to retrieve Bodas car. When arrested, they did not tell the cops the purpose of their visit to the garage.
Vanzetti was first tried on frame-up charges for the failed robbery in Bridgeport in an attempt by the state to stick either him or Sacco with a criminal record before trial on the Braintree murder charges. Felix Frankfurter described the farce in The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (1927):
The evidence of identification of Vanzetti in the Bridgewater case bordered on the frivolous, reaching its climax in the testimony of a little newsboy who, from behind the telegraph pole to which he had run for refuge during the shooting, had caught a glimpse of the criminal and knew by the way he ran he was a foreigner. Vanzetti was a foreigner, so of course it was Vanzetti!
Despite the testimony of 18 witnesses that he was in Plymouth selling eels at the time, Vanzetti was convicted of assault charges. Vanzetti and Sacco were then immediately indicted for the Braintree murders.
The murder trial began on 31 May 1921 in Dedham, Massachusetts, with a platoon of cops armed with riot guns stationed on the courthouse steps. Even a federal agent noted that the feeling in Dedham against Italians is very strong, and will probably get stronger as the trial progresses (quoted in William Young and David E. Kaiser, Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti ). Five of the jurors were chosen from a pool of personal acquaintances of a sheriffs deputy. Jury foreman Walter Ripley was a former police chief who began every court session by ostentatiously standing and saluting the flag. When a friend told Ripley before the trial that he didnt believe Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty, Ripley snapped back, Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!
In his opening remarks, Judge Thayer called on the jurors to render service with the same spirit of patriotism, courage and devotion to duty as was exhibited by our soldier boys across the seas. With Thayers support, prosecutor Frederick Katzmann cross-examined Sacco as to whether his collection of anarchist and socialist literature was in the interests of the United States. To inflame the jury, Katzmann asked repeated questions about their avoiding the draft by going to Mexico, and in his jury instructions Judge Thayer repeatedly referred to Sacco and Vanzetti as slackers.
As in Mumias 1982 frame-up trial, there was a total lack of evidence. None of the stolen loot was ever found on or near them. Thirteen alibi witnesses placed Vanzetti in Plymouth selling fish. Witnesses also testified that Sacco was in Boston at the time of the killing. Among them was a clerk from the Italian consulate, where on the day of the killing Sacco had gone to get a passport.
Eyewitnesses initially told the cops that they had not seen enough to identify the gunman; they were coerced to change their accounts. Two of them initially identified a photo of New York bank robber Anthony Palmisano, who was in prison at the time, as that of the shooter. Witness Lola Andrews, a part-time nurse with a history of prostitution and insurance fraud, identified Sacco as a man whom she asked for directions shortly before the shooting. On cross-examination, Andrews conceded that she was pressured by Katzmann to say that Sacco was that man. Other eyewitnesses testified that Sacco was not the killer. Barbara Liscomb testified that the gunman she saw standing over Berardelli looked directly at her, and it wasnt Sacco. Additional witnesses were concealed by the prosecution, such as Roy Gould, who was crossing the street when he was shot at by someone in the getaway car. The description of the shooter Gould gave to the cops could not have been that of either Sacco or Vanzetti.
Equally specious was the ballistics evidence. Six .32 calibre bullets were removed from Parmenter and Berardelli, ruling out the .38 revolver Vanzetti had on him when arrested. There was no formal record of custody for the bullets to document who handled them and when. All of the witnesses testified that there was only one gunman and only one pistol used. This was confirmed by the doctor performing the autopsy, George McGrath, who testified to the grand jury that all of the bullets looked exactly alike, with the same markings. Nevertheless, the prosecution came up with a Bullet III that, unlike the others, had a left twist, claiming that this was from Saccos .32.
In a post-trial affidavit submitted by the defense in 1923, the states chief ballistics expert, Captain Proctor, noted that he had told the prosecutor that if asked specifically whether tests showed that Bullet III passed through Saccos gun, he would have answered no. But after repeated badgering by the D.A., Proctor agreed to testify that the bullet was consistent with one from Saccos gun. Proctor later stated that he never believed the bullet passed through Saccos gun.
Despite the utter lack of evidence, the jury returned with guilty verdicts after only five hours of deliberation. In December 1921, Judge Thayer turned down a motion for a new trial. Though conceding the weakness of the prosecutions case, Thayer ruled that the evidence that convicted these defendants was circumstantial and was evidence that is known in law as consciousness of guilt, supposedly manifested by the lies Sacco and Vanzetti told when arrested in order to protect themselves and their comrades. As the 1927 ILD pamphlet Labors Martyrs written by Max Shachtman put it, The consciousness of guilt attributed to Sacco and Vanzetti was nothing but a healthy consciousness of the class struggle and the methods of the enemies of the working class.
Parallels with Frame-Up of Mumia
Everything used to convict Sacco and Vanzetti—phony ballistics, terrorization of witnesses, use of the defendants political background to inflame the jury—would be replicated in Mumias trial 60 years later. Prosecutor Joseph McGill argued to the nearly all-white jury that Mumias Black Panther Party membership 12 years earlier proved that he had been planning to kill a cop. The prosecutors two main witnesses were coerced into changing their testimony, and witnesses who could exonerate Mumia were terrorized into not coming forward.
As documented in the PDC pamphlet The Fight to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal—Mumia Is Innocent!, a ballistics expert testified that the fatal bullet was consistent with Mumias gun—but there is no evidence that Mumias gun, a .38 calibre, was even fired that night, or even what gun was used! The Medical Examiners report states that Faulkner was shot with a .44 calibre bullet. A witness to the shooting, William Singletary, said that the killer used a .22 calibre. Years later, Arnold Beverly came forward to confess to the killing and said that the gun he used was a .22. As part of a broad-ranging concealment and doctoring of evidence, there is a missing bullet fragment from Faulkners wound and a missing Medical Examiners X-ray of Faulkners body.
The most spectacular evidence that Sacco and Vanzetti and later Mumia did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death consisted of the confessions of professional criminals exonerating them. And in both cases, the courts threw out the evidence.
In November 1925, Celestino Madeiros, in Dedham prison awaiting an appeal for his 1924 conviction for murdering a bank guard, passed a note to Sacco stating, I hear by confess to being in the south Braintree shoe company crime and Sacco and Vanzetti was not in said crime (The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti). Medeiros subsequently swore an affidavit stating that the robbery was carried out by a group fitting the description of the Morelli gang, which was wanted for a series of freight train robberies, and that five others were involved. Shortly after the robbery, Medeiros had $2,800 in the bank, which would represent his share of the stolen payroll. Two friends of Medeiros later confirmed that he had described to them the role he and the Morellis played. Many years later, in his book My Life in the Mafia, Vincent Teresa described a meeting with Frank Morelli in the 1950s during which Morelli complained about a Boston Globe article accusing his gang of involvement in the Braintree murders. Morelli told him, What they said was true, but its going to hurt my kid.
In 2001, Marlene Kamish and Eliot Grossman, attorneys for Mumia at the time, submitted to state and federal courts the affidavit of Arnold Beverly that he, and not Mumia, shot officer Faulkner. According to Beverly, he was hired, along with someone else, to do so by cops and the mob because Faulkner was a problem for corrupt cops, interfering with rackets, bribery, drug dealing, etc. Beverlys testimony is supported by a mountain of evidence and ties together loose threads previously unexplained. Beverly had sworn his confession in 1999 to PDC counsel Rachel Wolkenstein, who was on Mumias legal team at that time but who resigned that year when his lead attorney, Leonard Weinglass, along with Dan Williams, suppressed Beverlys confession.
The ILD waged a hard political battle against those who threw up obstacles to class-struggle defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. Today we face similar obstacles, and then some, in our effort to mobilize labor-centered protest to demand Mumias freedom on the basis that he is an innocent man. The Sacco and Vanzetti case occurred in a period marked by the October Revolution, which inspired militant fighters around the world and drew a sharp dividing line between those who defended the Soviet Union and those who sided with the capitalist rulers. Todays world is profoundly shaped by the impact of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet workers state in 1991-92, following decades of Stalinist betrayal. As the bourgeois rulers proclaim the lie of the death of communism, the bulk of the left, which in the main joined in the imperialists anti-Soviet campaigns, places its political activity solidly within the framework of the democratic capitalist order.
Whereas in Sacco and Vanzettis case it was the prosecution who vilified the Medeiros confession, today many liberals and reformist leftists among Mumias defenders sling mud at the Beverly confession and even cast doubt on Mumias own 2001 statement that he did not shoot Daniel Faulkner. Representative of these types is David Lindorff, whose book Killing Time: An Investigation Into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (2003) is dedicated to trashing the Beverly evidence. Lindorff states, Im not convinced that Mumia Abu-Jamal was simply an innocent bystander and concludes that Mumia may have shot Faulkner (see David Lindorff, Michael Schiffmann: Undermining Mumias Fight for Freedom, WV No. 892, 11 May).
Why would Mumias ostensible defenders attack the Beverly confession? The Beverly evidence makes clear that the injustice to Mumia was not the action of one rogue cop, prosecutor or judge but the entire functioning of the capitalist system of injustice. This understanding is directly contrary to the liberal framework of Lindorff & Co., who embrace the very justice system that at every level has declared, as in the infamous Dred Scott case, that Mumia has no rights that it is bound to respect. Imbibing bourgeois liberalism, Socialist Action, Workers World Party and other reformist groups helped demobilize what had been a powerful protest movement by subordinating the call for Mumias freedom to the call for a new trial. In so doing, they have sought to appeal to those in the mainstream who see the legal hell that Mumia has been put through as a stain on the image of American justice.
The political battle against such illusions in capitalist justice must be won if labors social power is to be wielded on Mumias behalf. Many unions and union organizations have voiced their support for Mumia. But to turn this sentiment into labor protest and strike action requires fighting against the policies of the pro-capitalist union leaders, who see friends in the bosses government and political parties. We fight for a class-struggle defense strategy that places no faith in the justice of the courts and all faith in the power of the workers. In doing this, we honor the memory of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
Caught up in the anti-immigrant hysteria and Red Scare that swept the U.S. in the aftermath of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, anarchist workers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested in May 1920 and framed up on murder and robbery charges of which they were manifestly innocent. In an article written after their execution in the Massachusetts electric chair on 23 August 1927, James P. Cannon, at the time a leader of the Workers (Communist) Party (CP) and secretary of the International Labor Defense (ILD) and later the founder of American Trotskyism, declared:
The electric flames that consumed the bodies of Sacco and Vanzetti illuminated for tens of thousands of workers, in all its stark brutality, the essential nature of capitalist justice in America. The imprisonment, torture and murder of workers is seen more clearly now as part of an organized system of class persecution.
—A Living Monument to Sacco and Vanzetti, Labor Defender (October 1927)
Pointing to the ILDs role as the leading and organizing center of a protest movement that had rallied millions of workers around the world behind Sacco and Vanzettis cause, Cannon called for building a stronger, more united and determined movement for labor defense on a class basis. He noted that the industrial masters of America who had carried out the execution to deal a blow to the entire labor movement were not without allies, both conscious and unconscious, in the camp of the workers themselves. Sacco and Vanzetti will have died in vain, he wrote, if the real meaning and the causes of their martyrdom are not understood in all their implications. These lessons are indeed of crucial importance in the struggle against capitalist repression today and are posed with particular urgency in the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal who, despite massive evidence of his innocence, was railroaded to death row for his political beliefs and lifetime of struggle against black oppression.
The Defense Movement
With little known about their arrests outside the Boston area, the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti was initially limited to a local group of Italian anarchists who founded the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. The defense committee won the support of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a well-known radical, and her companion Carlo Tresca, an anarcho-syndicalist who edited the newspaper Il Martello in New York. The two members of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helped line up Fred Moore, who had a long record of defending union militants and radicals, to be lead attorney in the case.
Moore appealed to IWW members, union leaders and socialists to mobilize in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. The American Civil Liberties Union, of which Flynn was a founding member, and its New England affiliate voiced their support as did a number of prominent liberals, notably the journalists Elizabeth Glendower Evans and Gardner Jackson. Various unions and even the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) tops came out in defense of the two workers. As Sacco and Vanzetti faced trial in May 1921, some 64 union locals from across the country contributed to the defense, and a flood of labor support swept in following their conviction in July. As we noted in Part One of this article, in the fall of 1921 the CP and Communist International (CI) called for a worldwide campaign of protest centered on the working class. The AFL passed a resolution in 1922 calling for a new trial and two years later declared Sacco and Vanzetti victims of race and national prejudice and class hatred.
In a 1927 ILD pamphlet, Max Shachtman described the wide range of support for Sacco and Vanzetti in the workers movement and observed:
With many of these it was because they realized the class nature of the issues involved in the case; that it was not merely an incident of an accidental miscarriage of justice but that the judge, jury and prosecutor were striking as severe a blow at the labor movement as was struck thirty-five years before in the trial of the Haymarket martyrs. With the others, it was the result of the feelings and pressure from the mass, who felt, however vaguely, a working class kinship with the two agitators.
—Sacco and Vanzetti: Labors Martyrs
According to Massachusetts court procedure at the time, sentencing was postponed until all post-trial motions and appeals were decided. Although it was clear to everyone that the murder conviction could only mean a death sentence, that sentence was not pronounced until 1927. Sacco and Vanzettis lawyers, meanwhile, attempted to overturn the conviction with a series of motions before the same biased Judge Webster Thayer who presided over the kangaroo trial and appeals before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that rubber-stamped Thayers every move.
Thayer denied the first post-conviction motion for a new trial on Christmas Eve 1921. Beginning the month before and throughout the next two years, a series of six supplemental motions were filed by the defense. In July 1924, with those motions pending, Moore resigned as attorney in the case. With his replacement by William Thompson, the tactics of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee changed as well. As recounted in Bruce Watsons Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind (2007), Thompson flatly declared that he did not believe the government was actuated by any ulterior purpose in bringing the charge against them. Despising the mass protest movement, Thompson appealed instead to the legal and business establishment to use its influence on the courts and state house.
In turn, the Boston defense committee called for a stop to the workers protest actions. As Shachtman described in his pamphlet, for the next two years this strategy helped to discredit the honest and powerful class support of the toilers . They demanded the substitution of the movement of the masses by the movement of the lawyers. Shachtman pointed out, The defense turned more and more towards reliance upon those false friends concerned more with the vindication of confidence in our institutions and their capacity to rectify errors, and those high standards which are the pride of Massachusetts justice than with the vindication of two unknown immigrants.
Based on the Marxist understanding that the courts, cops, prisons and armed forces are core components of the capitalist state—a machinery of organized violence to protect the rule and profits of the exploiting class—the CP and ILD tirelessly fought against illusions in the capitalists rigged legal system. They fought instead for workers to rely only on their class power, derived from the fact that it is their labor that creates the wealth of society. In his important new biography, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (2007), Bryan Palmer includes a thorough account of Cannons leadership of the ILD, not least in regard to its efforts in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti.
The CP and ILD were determined that Sacco and Vanzetti would not be added to the long list of labors martyrs. They understood that mobilizing labors power in protest and strike action could compel the bourgeois rulers to relent in fear of the social costs that executing or imprisoning the two men for life would bring. They fought as well to imbue militants with the consciousness that to tear down the walls imprisoning fighters against exploitation and oppression once and for all requires a socialist revolution that destroys the capitalist state and replaces it with a workers state, where those who labor rule. In this, they were following the path laid out by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, who wrote in his 1902 work What Is To Be Done? that the communists ideal
should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.
Battle of Class Forces
In October 1924, Judge Thayer denied all motions presented by Sacco and Vanzettis lawyers. In December, the Communist International issued an appeal To the workers of all countries! To all trade union organizations! calling to Organize mass demonstrations! Demand the liberation of Sacco and Vanzetti! The Daily Worker, newspaper of the Workers (Communist) Party, continued to publicize this struggle, and the party organized a Chicago labor rally for Sacco and Vanzetti on 1 March 1925 and mobilized heavily for rallies in Boston and other cities that day. Shortly after its inception that year, the ILD issued a call for workers internationally to demonstrate solidarity with Sacco and Vanzetti. In a 23 May 1926 letter to the ILD, Vanzetti wrote, The echo of your campaign in our behalf has reached my heart.
Thayers 1924 decision was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, which sat on the case before affirming the convictions on 12 May 1926. Two weeks later, lawyers filed another motion for a new trial based on the affidavit of Celestino Medeiros confessing his involvement in the robbery that led to the murder charges against Sacco and Vanzetti, exonerating the two men. In October, Thayer rejected the Medeiros confession along with affidavits of two federal agents documenting the governments involvement in the frame-up and confirming that the two were targeted for their political activities. This was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The court proceedings touched off renewed protest activity. Labor Defender published a special Save Sacco and Vanzetti issue in July 1926 featuring An Appeal to American Labor by Eugene V. Debs, historic spokesman of the Socialist Party. Resolutions on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti were adopted by the Washington Federation of Labor and the New York Socialist Party.
The ILD initiated Sacco-Vanzetti committees and conferences throughout the U.S. that drew IWW militants, anarchists and delegates from the AFL and other union bodies around the call Life and Freedom for Sacco and Vanzetti! These meetings were an application of the tactic of the united front, through which a wide range of workers organizations unite in action around a common call while engaging in political debate based on their own programs. Through this means, the ILD sought to lay the basis for mass labor protest and strikes. The ILD also participated in rallies called by the Boston defense committee and other organizations. Cannon wrote to a wide array of public figures seeking statements in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. But the ILDs primary focus was unleashing labor strikes and protests.
In New York City, the ILD-initiated Sacco-Vanzetti Emergency Committee encompassed individuals and organizations representing nearly half a million workers. Rallies organized by the committee drew over 15,000 in New Yorks Madison Square Garden on 17 November 1926 and another 25,000 in Union Square the following April. Equally large gatherings were organized by ILD-led committees in Milwaukee, San Jose, Boston, Denver, Seattle and Chicago. Across the country, a network of two to three million workers was enlisted in the committees. The International Red Aid mobilized its organizations around the world, forming united-front committees in hundreds of cities and organizing mass protests. Millions throughout the entirety of the Soviet Union demonstrated in solidarity with the two class-war prisoners.
Thayers rulings opened up a period of sharpening political struggle over the way forward in this fight that would last up through the executions. The Socialist Party, AFL tops and anarchists organized some working-class protest, at times mobilizing significant forces. But such efforts were in the service of appeals for Sacco and Vanzetti to get their fair day in court, to be accomplished by tapping into liberal public opinion that hoped to spare the mens lives for the sake of Americas democratic image. As for the national AFL leadership, rather than issuing a call for labor mobilizations, it pushed a resolution through the October 1926 AFL convention appealing to Congress to investigate the case. The SP and AFL tops undermined the growing mobilization of the workers by looking to the political agencies of the class enemy, a policy accompanied by a vicious anti-Communist campaign of slander and exclusion.
Throughout the 1920s, the SP leadership under Morris Hillquit, which in 1919 had purged the left-wing Socialists who supported the Bolshevik Revolution, waged a campaign against Communist influence in the labor movement that was particularly fierce in the needle trades in New York City. For his part, Matthew Woll, a member of the AFL Executive Council, ranted that the AFL was the first object of attack by the Communist movement. The same Woll was acting president of the National Civic Federation, an anti-union business group that viciously opposed the campaign for Sacco and Vanzettis freedom.
In November 1926, the Ohio State Socialist Party refused to join in a rally called by the ILD-initiated Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, and the SPs New Leader (18 December 1926) retailed lying charges by the Boston defense committee that the CP and ILD had solicited funds for legal defense that were not forwarded and for which no accounting was made. In response to these slanders, Labor Defender (January 1927) published the ILDs accounts and copies of checks forwarded to the Boston committee. The article pointed out that an earlier Labor Defender (September 1926) had printed, as part of its regular practice, an accounting of its receipts and ILD campaign expenses and had called for contributions for legal defense to be sent directly to the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in Boston rather than to the ILD.
The smears against the ILD were gleefully seized upon by the bourgeois press at the time and are repeated to this day. In answering the blatantly false charge that the ILD had pocketed $500,000 raised for Sacco and Vanzettis defense, Labor Defender (October 1927) remarked that this slander only aided the Department of Justice and other agencies which consummated the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti and now hope to prevent the protest movement from being drawn into the fight in behalf of the other victims of the frame-up system now in prison or facing trial.
With the case again before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Cannon alluded to the sectarian exclusions and counterposed a class-struggle defense perspective in Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti? (Labor Defender, January 1927):
The Sacco-Vanzetti case is no private monopoly, but an issue of the class struggle in which the decisive word will be spoken by the masses who have made this fight their own. It is therefore, necessary to discuss openly the conflicting policies which are bound up with different objectives.
One policy is the policy of the class struggle. It puts the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers of America and the world. It puts all faith in the power of the masses and no faith whatever in the justice of the courts. While favoring all possible legal proceedings, it calls for agitation, publicity, demonstrations—organized protest on a national and international scale. It calls for unity and solidarity of all workers on this burning issue, regardless of conflicting views on other questions. This is what has prevented the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti so far. Its goal is nothing less than their triumphant vindication and liberation.
The other policy is the policy of respectability, of the soft pedal and of ridiculous illusions about justice from the courts of the enemy. It relies mainly on legal proceedings. It seeks to blur the issue of the class struggle. It shrinks from the vulgar and noisy demonstrations of the militant workers and throws the mud of slander on them. It tries to represent the martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti as an unfortunate error which can be rectified by the right people proceeding in the right way. The objective of this policy is a whitewash of the courts of Massachusetts and clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti in the form of a commutation to life imprisonment for a crime of which the world knows they are innocent.
The battle between these counterposed strategies took center stage following a 5 April 1927 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court again upholding Judge Thayer. Four days later, the front page of the Daily Worker carried an appeal by Cannon, From Supreme Court of Capital to Supreme Court of the Masses, in which he wrote, The New England bourbons want the blood of innocent men. This was decided from the first, only fools expected otherwise. Only fools put faith in the courts of the enemy. Cannon added, It is time now to appeal finally to the masses. It is time for the workers to say their word.
On April 9, Sacco and Vanzetti were called into Thayers courtroom for sentence to be pronounced. The two men spoke defiantly. Sacco told the judge, I know the sentence will be between two class[es], the oppressed class and the rich class, and there will always be collision between one and the other. When Vanzetti got his turn, he stated: I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian;...but I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already (quoted in Herbert P. Ehrmann, The Case That Will Not Die: Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti ). They were sentenced to die in three months.
Following the sentencing, the ILD issued a call for a national conference of all elements willing to unite to demand and force freedom for Sacco and Vanzetti. On April 16, 20,000 workers filled New Yorks Union Square in a protest called by the ILD-led Sacco-Vanzetti Emergency Committee. As part of an intensive effort over the next several weeks, more than 500 May Day meetings were organized by the ILD across the U.S and Canada.
The SPs response to the sentencing was to further promote false hopes in bourgeois politicians. The New Leader (16 April 1927) wrote, The next move is up to Governor Fuller, and there seems to be no doubt that he will have to accede to the world-wide demand that he act to save the lives of the two men. The SP declared the scheduled execution date of July 10 as a day of national mourning for the death of American justice, while Hillquit called upon the government and the governor of the State of Massachusetts to order a full and impartial investigation of the whole case (New Leader, 23 April 1927).
After SP organizers of Sacco-Vanzetti meetings in Philadelphia and Cleveland refused to seat delegates from the ILD and other organizations, Cannon issued a statement printed in the Daily Worker (4 May 1927) condemning the disruption of the labor reactionaries, noting that their aim is to isolate the militants and then sabotage the movement. With the social democrats, anarchists and labor tops working to undermine the ILDs efforts, the plan to hold a national Sacco-Vanzetti conference fell through. The Boston defense committee sought to head off growing sentiment in the unions for such a conference by appealing instead for Governor Fuller to appoint a commission to review the case. On June 1, they got their wish, as Fuller announced the appointment of a three-man panel to advise him on Vanzettis petition for clemency filed the previous month.
The panel was led by Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, a patrician reactionary who had campaigned for the draconian 1921 Immigration Quota Act, banned black students from living in Harvard dorms, restricted Jewish enrollment at Harvard and opposed legislation reducing child labor in the textile industry. This record did not stop the Boston committee from lauding the commission as men reputed to be scholarly, of high intelligence and intellectual probity, with minds unswayed by prejudice. The committee advised the governor to implement the power of commutation because that would be far less likely to undermine public faith in the courts of the Commonwealth. The SP affirmed its faith that while the members of this commission are conservatives, it is generally believed that their high professional standing gives fair assurance that they will make a report justified by all the facts in the case (New Leader, 9 July 1927).
Rumors swirled that Fuller would respond to the growing international protests by commuting the death sentences. Recalling how an earlier movement on behalf of class-war prisoners Tom Mooney, who faced execution, and Warren Billings had been sapped by the commutation of Mooneys death sentence to life imprisonment, Cannon cautioned in Death, Commutation or Freedom? (Labor Defender, July 1927): The great movement for Sacco and Vanzetti, which now embraces millions of workers, must not allow itself to be dissolved by a similar subterfuge. Calling a life sentence a living death, he warned, The hearts of the Massachusetts executioners have not softened with kindness, and their desire to murder our comrades has not changed.... The working class must reply: Not the chair of death, but life for Sacco and Vanzetti! Not the imprisonment of death, but freedom to Sacco and Vanzetti!
Political Battle Comes to a Boil
As the scheduled execution date of July 10 neared, the social democrats brought their anti-Communist campaign to a fever pitch, regurgitating the slander about the ILDs fundraising and stepping up their divisive attempts to exclude CP and ILD militants. This came to a head at a mass rally of 25,000 workers in Union Square on July 7. Called by the labor-based Sacco-Vanzetti Liberation Committee (SVLC), some 30 unions joined in the call for a one-hour protest strike that day, bringing out half a million workers. The ILD and its Emergency Committee built heavily for the protest, distributing 200,000 leaflets. The rally went ahead despite the granting of a one-month reprieve by Governor Fuller.
In negotiations before the rally, the SVLC had agreed that there would be four platforms, with two allotted to the Emergency Committee. But the SP had other plans, and only two platforms were set up, both controlled by the SP. After a number of Socialist speakers addressed the crowd, a contingent of workers hoisted Ben Gold, a CP member who had led a successful Furriers strike, onto their shoulders. As they approached the podium demanding that Gold speak, SP honcho Abraham Weinberg kicked Gold in the chest, sending him reeling into the crowd. When the workers carried Gold to the other platform, SP bigwig August Claessens attacked him as well.
Claessens and Weinberg then called in the police, who charged the crowd on horseback and broke up the rally. After the attack, SP spokesmen made absolutely clear that driving out the reds took priority over carrying out a united action in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. The SPs Samuel Friedman baldly stated, We would rather have the meeting broken up than allow a faker like Gold speak (Daily Worker, 8 July 1927). The New Leader (16 July 1927) declared that due to known antagonism and charges of misconduct it had been decided that the Communists were not to be permitted to co-operate in the meetings.
The SPs exclusionism only served to weaken the movement in the face of a furious onslaught by the bourgeois state. As the new execution date of August 10 approached, the ILD helped build a July 31 protest at Boston Common called by the Boston defense committee. As described in the New Leader (13 August 1927), after the cops broke up the SP-led rally at one end of the Common, most of the demonstrators moved to another part of the park, where the Communists held a permit. That rally, too, was dispersed by the cops. Around the country, cops broke up protest meetings with clubs, guns and tear gas.
Governor Fuller denied clemency on August 3. The next day, the ILDs Emergency Committee issued a call for a half-day strike of New York labor on August 9. The labor tops tried their best to sabotage the strike, with the AFL leadership spurning calls from numerous unions and other workers organizations to take action while many local union officials announced in the capitalist press that they opposed the strike. Nonetheless, 50,000 turned out in Union Square, and another 50,000 struck in Philadelphia. A Chicago protest of 20,000 the same day was fired on by the cops. Fullers denial had finally spurred AFL head William Green to action, writing Fuller to ask for executive clemency. As the Daily Worker (10 August) commented, an appeal by Green to AFL unions would aid tremendously in staying the hand of the executioner! But an appeal to Fuller couched in such honeyed words as Green uses only enhances that vile enemy of labor in the eyes of his class and indirectly sanctions the murders.
As the hour of execution neared, a wave of protests took place around the world. In the U.S., police forces brutally moved against the protesters: offices were raided in New York, Detroit and San Francisco, and meetings were broken up. On the night of August 10, cars of heavily armed cops roamed through Chicago, breaking up every gathering of more than a dozen workers. Earlier that same day, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a liberal icon, had turned down a habeas corpus petition for Sacco and Vanzetti, and shortly before midnight they were brought to the death house. A half hour before the time set for execution, Fuller announced a reprieve until midnight, August 22, to allow their attorney to argue a new motion before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
On August 16, the day of the hearing, the ILD announced plans for protests in 200 cities. The 18 August Daily Worker carried a front-page appeal by Cannon, titled No Illusions, that warned the working masses not to be fooled with false hopes and false security. He stressed:
The great task, therefore, in the few fateful days remaining, up to the last minute of the last hour, is to put all energy, courage and militancy into the organization of mass demonstrations and protest strikes. All brakes upon this movement must be regarded as the greatest danger. All illusions which paralyze the movement must be overcome. All agents of the bosses who try to sabotage and discredit the protest and strike movement must be given their proper name.
Another front-page appeal by Cannon the following day declared: Put no faith in capitalist justice! Organize the protest movement on a wider scale and with a more determined spirit! Demonstrate and strike for Sacco and Vanzetti! When the Massachusetts high court turned down another appeal on the 19th, the Emergency Committee called for a mass protest strike on August 22.
On August 20, Oliver Wendell Holmes refused to stay the execution, and a similar request was turned down by Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone on August 22. Millions took to the streets worldwide. But Sacco and Vanzetti were executed shortly after midnight.
A Mountain of Slander
Eighty years after this legal lynching, various bourgeois journalists and academics continue to regurgitate long-disproved lies about the case. Some portray that the two worker militants were common criminals guilty of coldblooded murder. Others rehash the lie that unlike Vanzetti, Sacco never declared his innocence of the murders. Not only did he do just that in numerous letters that have been published, but his declaration of innocence was carried out of prison by a spy the Feds planted in the cell next to his!
On 24 December 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported the discovery of a 1929 letter from Upton Sinclair written after he finished Boston, his novel about the case. Sinclair wrote that he met with Fred Moore, who told him that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty and that he had concocted alibis for them. News of the Sinclair letter was picked up by Jonah Goldberg, an editor of the right-wing National Review, and found a home on various blogs. This was, in fact, old news. Sinclair had written about the discussion in 1953, when he pointed out that Moore had made clear that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti confessed to him and that he had no proof of their guilt. According to Moores ex-wife, he became embittered after he left the case. In 1963, Sinclair wrote, Those who believe or declare Sacco was guilty get no support from me (quoted in Watson, Sacco and Vanzetti).
The primary source of the slanders against Sacco and Vanzetti and those who fought for them is a cabal of Cold Warriors around the National Review, which was founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr. and whose longtime senior editor was renegade ex-Trotskyist James Burnham. At a time when it was generally acknowledged that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent frame-up victims, a 1961 National Review article by Max Eastman claimed that in 1942 he was told by anarchist Carlo Tresca, Sacco was guilty, but Vanzetti was not. Eastman had earlier been editor of the left-wing Masses but by the time of his purported conversation with Tresca had become a virulent anti-Communist. In the 1950s, Eastman was a strong supporter of the witchhunting Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
A year after Eastmans article came the book Tragedy in Dedham by Francis Russell, a regular contributor to National Review. Russell claimed that after his expulsion from the party, James Cannon was to admit privately—much as Moore did—that he felt Sacco was guilty. (Cannon was expelled from the CP in 1928 along with Max Shachtman and Martin Abern for supporting Leon Trotskys criticisms of the Stalin-Bukharin leadership of the degenerating Communist International.) Russell would later identify Burnham as his source for that tale.
Cannon responded in a letter to the New Republic (27 April 1963): The truth is that I have never felt or thought that Sacco was guilty. I have always thought they were innocent, and have never expressed a different thought or feeling, privately or publicly, anywhere at any time. Defending the memory of Carlo Tresca, a friend of Cannons who worked closely with him in the Sacco and Vanzetti campaign, he added, Never, at any time, did I ever hear him express or even intimate any doubt about the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. And I never heard any report, or rumor, or gossip, from anyone else who ever heard such a thing about Tresca until Mr. Russells statement hit me in the eye.
There can be no mistaking that the point to rewriting the history of this case is not just to trash the memory of the two anarchists but to smear labor militancy and revolutionary proletarian opposition to the bloodsoaked capitalist system—i.e., communism. Liberal defenders of Sacco and Vanzetti have joined in rehashing the attacks on the ILD and early CP. In her 1977 book The Never-Ending Wrong, Katherine Anne Porter claimed that shortly before the execution she was told by one Communist, Who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive? Along with the lies about money and other anti-Communist slanders, this is passed as good coin in Watsons Sacco and Vanzetti. Watson writes of the critical last weeks, As party members grew increasingly shrill, their callousness appalled sincere supporters. Communists flocking to Boston, Gardner Jackson remembered, unquestionably preferred Sacco and Vanzetti dead [rather] than alive. Watson proclaims, Sacco and Vanzetti were far more useful to Communists than Communists would be to them.
At the height of the fight to save Sacco and Vanzetti, the CP argued against any in the movement who argued that their execution would ultimately redound in the favor of the working class: The workers holding to such an opinion must be made to realize that martyrs are a confession of weakness on the part of the laboring masses. The fact that the bosses can railroad to prison or put to death our leaders with impunity becomes a weapon of intimidation in their hand and does help to cow and keep in submission the less militant mass . The more powerful labor becomes, the more effective it is in making its demands heeded, the less will it have martyrs (Daily Worker Magazine, 28 May 1927).
Mumia and Class-Struggle Defense
The case of Sacco and Vanzetti contains powerful lessons for the fight to free class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death after being falsely convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. As we noted in Part One, the overwhelming evidence of Mumias innocence includes the sworn confession of Arnold Beverly that he, not Mumia, shot Faulkner. As with the Medeiros confession exonerating Sacco and Vanzetti, the courts have refused to hear the Beverly confession and its supporting evidence.
The Partisan Defense Committee has secured statements from hundreds of prominent individuals and labor leaders and organizations internationally demanding that Mumia be freed on the basis that he is an innocent man and the victim of a racist, political frame-up. As Mumias case enters its final stages, it is crucially important that such statements be turned into labor action. But to make that happen requires conducting the kind of hard political struggle that the CP and ILD waged against the reactionary labor tops as well as those socialists who obstruct class-struggle defense by sowing illusions in the capitalist injustice system. Among Mumias ostensible defenders are several left groups that replicate the reformist outlook and strategy of the SP of the 1920s but lack the kind of base it had in the working class. A typical example is Jeff Macklers Socialist Action (SA), which represents nothing so much as the New Leader of today.
Where Cannon warned against illusions in the black-robed justices, Mackler hailed the December 2005 announcement by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that it would hear only three of Mumias two dozen issues on appeal as a decision that will likely stun the Pennsylvania legal establishment and opined that there was little likelihood that the court would reinstate the death sentence (Socialist Action, December 2005). Echoing the New Leaders praise for the high professional standing of the Lowell Commission, Mackler wrote in Socialist Action (June 2007) about the oral argument before the Third Circuit the previous month that several decisions on other matters relevant to Mumias case marked this court as among the few remaining liberal juridical institutions in the country. Mackler is co-coordinator of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, which offers a sample letter to send to Democratic Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell that concludes, We urge your intervention to guarantee that justice is done. This is the same Ed Rendell who as Philly D.A. in 1981-82 prosecuted Mumia!
We honor Sacco and Vanzetti by fighting for the life and freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal in the class-struggle tradition of the ILD. When Mumia faced an August 1995 execution date, an international wave of protest that crucially included trade unionists played a major role in the courts decision to grant a stay of execution. At the same time, liberals and reformists sought to steer that struggle into relying on the racist bourgeois legal system to secure justice for Mumia. And it was that liberal strategy of reliance on the capitalist courts that demobilized Mumias army of supporters around the world. Today the need to revitalize the movement for Mumias freedom is posed pointblank. As we wrote in Class-Struggle Defense vs. Faith in Capitalist Justice (WV No. 892, 11 May): Indeed, labors power must be brought to bear on behalf of Mumia. But it is self-evident that this can only be done by mobilizing independently of the forces of the capitalist state that framed up this innocent man.
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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard Nos. 897 and 898, 31 August and 14 September 2007)
Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.